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Symbols and Instances Tutorial Adobe Illustrator

Covering all the basics on how to use, edit, create, adjust, save and delete Symbols and Instances in Adobe Illustrator.

What are Symbols?

Symbols are copies of art work / art objects / art elements that are saved into a library so that you can reuse / share / access them quickly and easily in any Illustrator document.

Why do we use them?

We use Symbols because they reduce file size and make the work flow easier.  They save us time from having to redraw / edit certain art works several times over.

What is an Instance?

An instance is the element on the art board that is linked to a Symbol.  When you edit a Symbol, all instances connected to that Symbol will be affected.

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An instance is the element on the art board that is linked to a Symbol.

You can apply any of the options from the Appearance panel to add Graphic Styles and Effects to each instance individually without affecting the other instances.
From the Object Menu you can use the Transform tools and Envelope Distort.  You can also apply Blend when two or more instances are selected.

How to access the Symbol Panel

There are three ways to access the Symbol Panel in Adobe Illustrator.

  1. Main menu Windows / Symbols.
  2. Quick keyboard short cut ctrl + shift + F11.

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    How to open the Symbol Panel
  3. On screen icon or menu.

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    How to open the Symbols Panel

How to create a Symbol

You can convert almost any artwork into a Symbol.  Here are two ways to do that.
1. Select your art work and click on the New Symbol Icon.  The Symbol Options will pop up.  Give it a name and press ok.

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Create a new Symbol

2. Select your art work and drag it into the Symbols panel.  The Symbol Options will pop up.  Give it a name and press ok.

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Drag artwork into Symbols panel.

How to access Symbol Options

Symbol options can be edited at any time from the bottom of the Symbols panel.  There is no difference between a Movie and Graphic Type Symbol in Illustrator and these functions, including the 9-Slice Scaling, are mostly used for Flash and animation.   Name and Registration are the only relevant things here for our graphics.

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How to access Symbol Options

How to use a Symbol

You can use Symbols by individually placing them on the art board or by using the Symbol Sprayer Tool.
Select the Symbol from the Symbol panel then click on the Place Symbol Instance Icon located at the bottom of the Symbols panel to place an instance on your art board.

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Place Symbol Instance

Select the Symbol icon from the Symbol panel, drag it to the art board and release the mouse click.  An instance will be placed on your art board.

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Drag Symbol to Artboard

Select the Symbol from the Symbols panel and the Symbol Sprayer Tool from the tool menu.

How to edit a Symbol

Symbols and instances are linked.  You can edit a Symbol from the Symbol definition.  Symbol definitions are the main structures that compose your Symbols.  Editing Symbol definitions is done in Isolation Mode.

How to edit a Symbol from the Symbols Panel: Double click on the Symbol Icon in the Symbols panel to access the Symbol definition. Do your adjustments.  Double click on a blank area on your art board to exit isolation mode.  All edits done will be applied to all linked instances automatically.
How to edit a Symbol from the art board: Double click any instance on the art board to isolate the layer.  A pop-up will appear informing you that you’re about to edit the Symbol definition.  Click OK and do your adjustments.  All linked instances will change accordingly.

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Double Click Symbol or Instance to Edit.

How to change / swap / replace / redefine a Symbol

Redefine Symbol lets you change a Symbol and all its instances to another graphic.  Select your new art work.  Select the Symbol icon from the Symbols panel.  From the fly out menu select  Redefine Symbol.  All graphics that are linked to this symbol will now change.

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Change a symbols graphics with Redefine Symbol

How to change / swap / replace Instances

Replace Symbol allows you to change the Symbol of selected instances.  Select the instances you want to replace on the art board.  Select the Symbol you want to replace the current selection with.  From the fly-out menu select Replace Symbol.

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Change Instance to a different Symbol.

How to Break Link from Symbol / Expand Instance

Break link means the instance is no longer connected to the Symbol.  Therefor it is no longer an instance and will not be affected when you edit the Symbol definition.  It is now just another normal independently adjustable graphic.
Expanding an instance also detaches it from the Symbol.

  1. Select the instances you want to unlink and click Break Link to Symbol icon located at the bottom of the Symbols panel.
  2. Select the instances you want to unlink and select Break Link to Symbol option from the fly-out menu.
  3. To Expand an instance, go the main menu Object / Expand

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    Detaching an instance from the Symbol.

How to delete Symbols

Select the Symbol you want to delete from the Symbols panel.  Press shift + click to select multiple or from the fly-out menu Select All Unused to select all unused Symbols. Click on the Delete Symbol icon located at the bottom right of the Symbols panel or use the fly-out menu.  If a Symbol’s instances are being used, you will be prompted to either expand or delete them.

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How to delete a Symbol

How to save a Library

Saving your Symbols to the Library allows you to access these Symbols any time you need.  Navigate to the Symbol Libraries Menu at the bottom of the Symbols panel or the fly-out menu  Save Symbols.  Give your new library a name and press save.

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Save Symbol to Library

Saved Symbol Libraries can be found under User Defined in the Symbol Libraries Menu.

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Open saved user Symbols

How to access the Symbol Libraries Menu

The Symbol Libraries Menu opens in a new panel.  You can navigate through the folders quickly from the Symbol Libraries Menu icon or the Load Previous / Next arrows.  Clicking on a Symbol in the library will add it to your Symbol Panel.

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Symbol Libraries

You can access the Symbol Libraries in two ways from the Symbols Panel.  All used Symbols are automatically added to your Symbols panel.

  1. Click the Symbol Libraries Menu Icon, first icon on the bottom left of the Symbols Panel, to open the Symbols Library.
  2. Using the Fly-out Menu located in the top right corner of the Symbols Panel.
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    Symbols Library Open

How to Import a Library

From the Symbols panel, navigate to the Symbol Libraries Menu / Other Library to import files.

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Import Symbol Libraries

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